Neal's 20th goal sparks Penguins' 20th win
WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- There is much to be said for having 20 wins by Christmas in the NHL, as the Penguins do after three third-period goals whipped the Winnipeg Jets, 4-1, Friday night at MTS Centre.
As goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury delightedly assessed it, "That was a lot of fun."
There is just as much to be said for having 20 goals, as James Neal does after his tiebreaking strike 22 seconds into the third period.
But there is even more to be said for how the team -- as a whole -- is taking this three-game winning streak into the holiday break:
The Penguins faced a Buffalo team four games above .500, and they embarrassed the Sabres, 8-3.
They faced a Chicago team that leads the NHL in points and was fresh off a five-game winning streak, and they edged the Blackhawks, 3-2.
They faced a Winnipeg team that had gone 7-1-1 in its past nine home games and might play with the most decided home-ice advantage in hockey, and they silenced the Jets and their typically vocal crowd.
It isn't the Penguins' longest winning streak -- that was five games Oct. 18-27 -- and it might not even be their best string of performances. But it sure looked like what center Jordan Staal and several other players had discussed beforehand as a team objective.
"We've done well, no question, but there's always room for improvement," Staal said of the Penguins' 20-11-4 record. "We've been up and down. We win a few games in a row, but we haven't really had that consistency that everyone in this room wants to see. We've got to compete hard every night."
No one could diminish their level of competitiveness in this one, especially with the late breakout: The score was 1-1 through two after goals by the Penguins' Joe Vitale and Winnipeg's Alexander Burmistrov, but the visitors beat Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec three times in the first five minutes of the third.
Neal started that with an all-around stylish goal.
Evgeni Malkin, visibly hobbled throughout the night, fell forward as he lunged for a puck to the left of Pavelec. While nearly face down on the ice, he twisted his stick to slip the puck to Neal in the low slot, and Neal buried it high at the 22-second mark.
"Geno made a great pass," Neal said. "And then all of our guys stepped up from there. It was great to see everybody respond."
That goal extended both players' scoring streaks to seven games, with Malkin having 16 points in that span, Neal nine. Those two have scored 12 of the Penguins' 28 goals over the past seven games.
From a broader perspective, Neal reached the 20-goal plateau for the fourth time in as many NHL seasons, with a long way to go.
Would anyone believe he's on pace for 47?
"I just want to make sure I'm not letting up in the second half," Neal said. "That's very important to me."
Staal and Pascal Dupuis made it 4-1, and the building that Winnipeg left winger Tanner Glass earlier in the day called "the loudest I've ever heard" was converted into the building Fleury called "very quiet at the end."
Coach Dan Bylsma had promised his players he would wear a garish green Christmas sweater -- two reindeer and a festive tree across the chest -- for this if they beat Chicago. So, he had it on all day, miserable as it must have been for him and anyone with a modicum of fashion sense.
Will he dare wear it again?
"Don't worry," Bylsma said. "I've still got the tag on the back."
how they scored
Penguins, 1-0 (13:59): C Joe Vitale pops in rebound from right lip of crease after D Alexandre Picard takes something off point shot to ensure it gets on net.
Jets, 1-1 (9:11): C Alexander Burmistrov skated to the left hash and one-timed a cross-ice feed from RW Blake Wheeler behind Penguins G Marc-Andre Fleury.
Penguins, 2-1 (:22): LW James Neal roofs his 20th goal from the low slot after C Evgeni Malkin feeds him from the left side while lying almost face down.
Penguins, 3-1 (4:14): C Jordan Staal one-times a 15-footer on the power play after tic-tac-toe power-play passing from LW Steve Sullivan - his 700th career point -- and RW Chris Kunitz.
Penguins, 4-1 (4:54): LW Pascal Dupuis snaps a shot off the rush down the right side and beats G Ondrej Pavelec to the blocker side.